Original Photographs and essays completed during the academic year of 2010, when I was a senior in high school, and just about to begin the next big chapter in my life.
From the original 2010 publication, which is in book form: "These are ordinary people who have lived through a century of history. I am grateful that they took the time to share with me their paths to becoming who they are today. And, for myself, beginning my own path into adulthood, they provided an invaluable perspective on the journey ahead.
So, thank you Howard, Naomi, Madeline, and Woody for your stories."
I had arrived early. I sat in the parking lot of Vista del Monte, the windows down, the car off, the radio playing lightly. I was reviewing my questions for my first interview, but I couldn't focus. I was too nervous. All I knew was that his name was Howard Merrill and that he had a kind voice on the phone. But the nervousness just wouldn't go away. I began to question myself. I had come to talk to this man about getting old. Suddenly, I felt that this project was ridiculous, rude, and totally inappropriate. The whole premise of my project revolved around interviews with four people from Vista del Monte about how they were dealing with aging. Who was I, a 17 year old, wide-eyed girl, to interrogate people about how they felt about approaching death? The breeze came through the car and made me blink. I looked at the clock. Five minutes until I was supposed to be at his apartment. So, I leaped out of the car, checked my purse to make sure everything was there--notebook, pen, recorder, watch--and set off to his apartment.
The nervousness was building now, the pressure rising towards my throat. I passed apartment 158, 159, now 160...and there it was, right at the end of the hall. Apartment 161. I stopped for a second, admired the sign hanging on it that read "The Merrills" and the small family pictures by the door. The blood was still pounding in my ears though, and as I raised my hand to ring the bell, the door opened. "Oh! Perfect timing! You must be Erin?" he said. I laughed, told him yes, and my nervousness vanished as I looked into his smiling face, white hair slightly illuminated by the light coming in from the porch windows.
"How are you today, Mr. Merrill?" I asked. "Oh, you know, as well as you can be at 99." he replied. And we began to talk.
Howard Merrill is 99 years old and he knows that means he's been here a while. His life began in the forests of Vermont. Though he spent most of his time growing up in Connecticut, Howard's early years were spent in a few different homes on the eastern seaboard, like New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont: "My folks moved around quite a bit." Perhaps as a result of all this moving, his family was very close, a reason Howard cites for his happy outlook on life. I had to ask him: was he just born with that upbeat attitude? I had to know where his happy outlook, such a coveted thing, came from.
He laughed, "Good question. No, I don't think I was born with it. It's an acquired characteristic...For years and years we did things as a family. We always went together. Summer, we spent together. Trips to the beach, always together. Go visiting relatives, always together. It was just a family." It's not that his family was always perfectly happy (because of course, no one is), it's that they put on that appearance. A sort of "fake it 'til you make it" approach. And that approach seems to have stuck with Howard all these years. "I try to keep a happy outlook on things. And if I do get mad, well, I get over it in a hurry."
As a young man, Howard took advantage of exploring his rural home and he cultivated a passion for the outdoors at a young age. This interest remained strong throughout his life; he spent his career working for the Federal Wildlife Service as a research biologist. His fascination with animals and love for the outdoors haven't dulled. He told me, as excited as if it had happened yesterday, of an assignment he had worked on early in his career. He described the awe he felt at the sight of huge flocks of seagulls massing around cases of salmon in Alaska. "Well, the problem was that they were dumping all the waste feed out in the bay, which was attracting seagulls from miles around. It was quite a sight." After doing a lot of research, Howard and his team eventually found out that if they ground up all the waste before dumping it into the bay, then the seagulls couldn't pick it up. "Very happy ending. Sounds simple when you look back on it." Well, it didn't sound too simple to me.
But before all that, Howard was a kid. He grew up being outside and playing sports. In high school, he played all the games: football, basketball, baseball. "They even talked me into running a half mile once in a while. That's too much!" Howard eventually ended up at the University of Connecticut, where his father was a professor. "When I was in college, it was just a nice college community and that's about all it was: one store, one gas station, and the university. But you got to know everybody." Though Howard continued playing sports in college, he said with a laugh, "You can't play sports all the time! You have to stop and study once in a while." So that was that. Howard grew up, graduated college, and began working on his "wonderful assignments" with the Federal Wildlife Service.
But in 1942 World War II came into Howard's life. He was relocated to Camp Roberts in central California, where he spent the next four years in the army as a medical inspector. "We all thought 'this is a terrible place!' But we soon realized it was better than being at war somewhere being fired at all the time. So we survived."
And Howard fell in love. Her name was Evelyn Maurer. She was an army nurse who was stationed at the hospital at Camp Roberts. They married soon after they met. He and Evelyn lived happily together until Evelyn died in 1993.
After the war, Howard went back to his job with the Federal Wildlife Service and remained there for most of his working life. When he retired, Howard took a job with the United Nations and traveled to educate the local people about food conservation. However, he stayed for less than a year because war broke out between Pakistan and India. Though he did return to Pakistan after the war, the situation was in such turmoil that he decided to come home for good despite his sadness that he couldn't further help the people he had met there and his frustration with how much they were suffering. He then moved back to Vermont, and stayed there for the next fifteen years of his life. Howard took advantage of the outdoors once again and spent his time skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. "Those were great years," he said, smiling at the memory. "Vermont was my favorite place. People said, 'Oh, you can't take it this time of year, it's too cold.' Well, the cold never bothered me." He laughed, "Good circulation, I guess."
After he left Vermont, Howard lived in Arizona, and then he came to Santa Barbara. His life didn't slow down, however. Five years ago, he met Junie, his current wife, at Vista del Monte. After a yearlong courtship, he proposed and they married. "I came here and saw the right person and she recognized me as the right person and we just hit it off." In fact, they found each other during a birthday party celebration at Vista del Monte. Every month, Vista has a celebration for all birthdays of that particular month. "My birthday's in March and in March the theme was St. Patrick's Day. So, I dyed my hair green and that was that. That attracted Junie!" And they've been living happily every since.
As he told me about his life, the things that stood out to me most about Howard Merrill were his laugh and his passion for the outdoors. It's that simple: he's a happy guy. It's funny, the first thing he said to me was, "People always ask me what do I attribute my old age to, and it's pretty hard to tell but I usually start off by saying that I have the right genes." And I believe him, but I have a feeling it also has a lot to do with being happy. That's the first thing I learned from Howard: no matter what comes your way, be it good, bad or just plain ugly--smile. Laugh it off. Howard's longevity was largely a product of his self-proclaimed "happy outlook."
et's face it: Howard knows he's an old man. Yet I could still see his passion every time he spoke about anything having to do with nature: be it a baby porcupine he "parented" in the 60s, or the trout he had raised on his ranch in Vermont originally for food but then just as pets because he had become so attached to them. Fascination, passion, and the desire to learn made up Howard's vibe. But his lesson to me was in his smile and the twinkle in his eyes.
So that's what I took from Howard. Each person I spoke to in this project gave me something. Howard's lesson was happiness.
Howard Merrill passed away in 2012 at 101 years old, 6 months after Junie's death.
I was less nervous heading into my second interview. When I first saw Naomi, her cheeks were pink from an exercise class she had just finished doing and her smile was wide across her face. I was immediately struck by the sprightliness of this 87-year-old woman walking towards me. I was suddenly very aware (and guilty) of the fact that I had skipped a run that morning because I felt "too tired."
Naomi Wain was born in Montreal, Canada though she grew up in Los Angeles. Soon after her thirteenth birthday, Naomi found herself in a tuberculosis sanitarium--a place where she was told to remain on her back and move as little as possible. "I had just had my thirteenth birthday when 'bang'! Two years in a hospital." She still found optimism in such a place though, saying that she was glad she was with other children, being an only child at home. The tuberculosis not only affected her physically, but it also disrupted her schooling. During her stay in the hospital she received almost no education--the extent of it was a teacher who chatted with the children once in a while, gliding down the long room of the sanitarium. So, Naomi read. A lot. And she listened to music. "I listed to music a great deal--got myself a little educated!" Every Saturday, she tuned her radio to the Metropolitan Opera. And so she spent those two years of her life teaching herself what she could.
Thus, Naomi's self-directed personality began to be sculpted. She missed the usual high school and college experiences of her peers. Later in life, even when talking with friends, Naomi hid the fact that she had missed out on a traditional education. "I felt not like an outcast so much as just different. And I didn't want to seem different, be different. But of course I was...you have to understand that at that time, people didn't talk about TB. It was a secret. No one spoke of it." Yet, Naomi remained optimistic. "I though, well, I'll get over being sick when I'm young so that when I'm old I'll be healthy! I've been lucky. Truly lucky."
I found this odd that Naomi would describe herself as lucky when she'd been stuck in a hospital for two years with an illness people viewed as "almost as bad as syphilis." So I asked her, would she change that experience if she could? "No, I wouldn't. It didn't do me any harm at all." I could hardly believe that. No harm at all? "It just gave me a different path from everybody else."
When Naomi turned 15, she had recovered from her tuberculosis, and her life lay open before her. The first thing she decided to do was to learn how to dance. So, her parents drove her to a free night class. The subject? Ballroom dancing. "My parents dropped me off and it wasn't a class--it was a dance. I was panicked, totally panicked. I had been in a hospital, I felt like I had been in another world for years. Then I thought, well, I'm just gonna see what happens! And I found I didn't need classes. We were dancing! That changed my life."
That story set the tone for the rest of our conversation. It embodies Naomi's attitude towards life: learn by experiencing.
Though her parents wanted her to return to school, Naomi felt it was too late. "I figured, eh! I'll learn." Instead she got a job at MGM where her father worked. She ended up appearing in several films. One, in which she starred, was produced in support of the war effort to sell war bonds. Naomi was enjoying her new life, going out, meeting new people. She recalled, smiling, "What we did, mostly, was look good." After about 2 years, Naomi left MGM and the movies. "I found the business was too rough. Just a bad atmosphere. However, one nice perk was that we got to go to the Beverly Hills swimming pool and look good as often as we wanted. They wanted pretty girls around. I couldn't afford the drinks though--everything was very expensive. So, all we did was look good and when we got hungry we went home!"
She laughed and I could see Naomi's move star beauty so easily it actually surprised me. Her smile was genuine and it lit her face in such a natural way that I felt lightened, as if I were remembering spending those glamorous days with Naomi Wain.
Naomi knew the movie business wasn't right for her anymore. She decided to learn a trade, though her mother, proud of her starlet daughter, would have preferred if Naomi stayed "in the pictures." But Naomi knew what she wanted. She met a photographer who soon offered to teach her the trade of retouching. "He said, 'Well, I'll try you. I'll teach you and I'll let you know if you have any talent.' Well, it turned out I was very good at it. Then he said, 'You know, you can get a job doing this.' And he told me where to go and I did and I got a job." For about a year Naomi stayed at that job until the business became less lucrative: as she got faster, the value of her work went down. Naomi, quick to recognize this, once again made a change and decided to find another profession.
She ended up working for a designer, doing various odd jobs. "Meanwhile, I would go to the Hollywood Canteen to dance with guys. These were dances for servicemen, during the war. I would point out the girls who I thought were going to be celebrities. Ava Gardner, I pointed out. I said, 'She's gonna be a star. Don't forget that name.' She was incredibly beautiful. Anyway, that was fun because, you know, the guys were interested and everything." She soon met an officer whom she particularly liked. "Eventually we got married, which was a terrible, dumb thing to do. But I guess I was 22."
Naomi soon found herself whisked away to Houston, Texas where her new husband, a second lieutenant, had been relocated. "So, I get off the plane and the first thing I see is a water fountain with a label 'For Whites Only.' I stopped dead in my tracks and I thought, 'Could I get back on that plane?'" Luckily, she and her husband were soon transferred to St. Louis, Missouri, a place Naomi found more agreeable. Seven months went by and Naomi realized her life was in dire need of a change. "I forgot his name for a couple years, that's how much I put it out of my mind. Anyway, it was a dumb idea. But, you know, it helped me grow up." They divorced. "I told him I'd made a mistake. I didn't need to live the life he was going to live."
When she said that, my heart jolted for a moment. I was amazed by the fact that in her early twenties, Naomi knew the life she wanted, or more importantly perhaps, the life she didn't want. I was constantly seeing how fearless Naomi had been throughout her life. And she was fearless about a thing so many people spend so much time being scared of: change. That little word governs lives. People stay in bad relationships because it's more comfortable than change. People continue to hurt those around them because we blame it on human nature to not be able to change. People refuse to go out and experience the world because it's too different from their recliners and TVs at home. Yet, Naomi carried that weighty word in her back pocket. She moved through her life, chameleon-like and adaptable, utterly unafraid of change.
Naomi returned home and came back to her retouching job. In 1955, Naomi lost her parents within 6 months of each other. "I think, wouldn't it be nice if I could have thanked them? By the time they died, I was beginning to realize what they had put into their one child, all their life. It makes you feel terribly guilty. You take it for granted." As Naomi got the finances they had left for her in order, she realized she didn't want to use the money. "Every little penny that my father had extra he would buy stamps with and he ended up with quite a valuable stamp collection. I thought, that I could use. The rest I felt they had struggled for all their life and worked hard for the little they had saved and I sure wasn't going to spend it."
Naomi ended up with $2,300 from her father's stamp collection. "I thought, well, I'm gonna spend $2,000 to spend three months in Europe. And everybody laughed. They said, 'You'll never spend three months in Europe on five dollars a day.' But I thought, Im gonna change my life."
There it was again: that "change" word. Naomi, a young woman who had recently lost both of her parents was about to embark, alone, on a three-month trip to Europe. I would have been petrified, but Naomi was just changing her life, ready to learn something new.
Naomi bought a ticket and set off. "A friend of mine said, 'When you get to Paris,' he said, 'there'll be two things you'll want. One is money and the other is a hamburger.' Well, I never had a hamburger for another three months when I got home!" She laughed and told me how she began in Portugal in March, worked her way up to Denmark, and eventually got to visit all the Scandinavian countries. She finally returned home in June. She had planned it perfectly: it was Spring everywhere she went.
When she returned home, her friend who had predicted her failure was impressed that she had made it back, with an extra hundred dollars to boot. "He was stunned that I had done that well and had a great time. And had eaten good dinners! So, he said, 'I have a job for you. I think you'd be a good salesperson.' I said, 'Oh, I do seem to be able to convince people of almost anything!'" Naomi soon landed herself a job as a saleswoman, selling art. "It's funny. You'll find that in the hills people want pictures of hills or mountains and by the ocean people want pictures of the water or ocean scenes."
So, Naomi did that, successfully as usual, until she met her second husband, Jack Orville Wain, who was in the accounting business. They were introduced through his family. "They arranged a party for us to meet. I got a call from my friend that this chap was gonna pick me up and take me to a party on such and such a date. Expect a phone call from him. I thought, well, that's fine. People were always introducing me to someone. They were tired of me being single I'm sure! So, I get a phone call from Jack--he had a beautiful voice--and I thought, gee, he sounds nice. I lived in a sort of tree house and he's coming up the stairs among the trees and I think, boy, he's tall! He smiled and I thought, what a beautiful smile! I still remember the first look at him--he wasn't good looking at all, but he had the sweetest smile and the friendliest face and such pretty hair and he was tall and appropriately built." Naomi laughed. She was looking out the tall dining hall windows. She sighed, smiling. "He was just darling."
Naomi and Jack married when she was 41 and he was 43. Jack had three daughters from an earlier marriage. Naomi told me that when she met her husband, it started a whole new life for her--that it made her a better person and him as well. It seemed to me that love had played quite a large role in her life. She said, "It was incredible. It's a good thing we hadn't met each other sooner." Why? I asked. "We might not have appreciated each other as much." I felt that was something I couldn't fully understand just yet, but I hoped I would someday.
So, Naomi and Jack began their life together. But before Jack, Naomi had fallen in love with skiing. In 1960, Naomi took a dry-land skiing class in Los Angeles. On her first turn down the dry rice hulls used as a hill in the back of the warm ski class studio, Naomi knew she was hooked. On her first trip to Mammoth, the class' "final" so to speak, Naomi knew she was utterly in love. "Oh, god, it was wonderful. The second day it was snowing. It wasn't a storm; it was flowing down, like in the movies. I stood there with tears in my eyes; I was so entranced. The other people in my class stayed inside! Our class was cancelled for that day. But I went out and practiced and practiced everything I'd learned. And I was absolutely sold."
Jack soon fell in love with skiing as well. "I remember he was very good at bodysurfing. And I thought, gee, he could ski!" Naomi continued, laughing, "That was one of my first thoughts!" Their trips to the snow became a ritual they were able to enjoy together for years.
Naomi lost jack to prostate cancer in 2001. She continued to ski, and continues today. And so we came to a certain end. It was quiet for a moment. Tentatively, I spoke, I guess, as we get older, we have to confront death more. Right? I added awkwardly. "Yes, certainly." Naomi replied. I hesitated. Is death something you think about now? "Yes." Naomi said, looking at me. "In a couple years, when I have to stop skiing, I'm gonna check out. So, anyway, when the time comes, I'll end it comfortably. I always thought I would do that. I mean, it isn't even a new thought." So you're not afraid? "No." She continued to look at me. "While I still can, I will do whatever I need to do. I don't plan to suffer. I'm enjoying life. I still enjoy it."
To end our conversation, I decided to ask Naomi a somewhat silly question: if you could become any animal that exists, what would you choose and why? She thought for a moment, her head back slightly, eyes towards the ceiling, smiling at the question. "What animals are the freest?" she mused. I smiled, thinking to myself. There was Naomi's lesson: freedom. She was living proof of an ideal. She always knew she was free to change her life, to choose her path, and she was never afraid to act on that knowledge. Her life story was evidence.
Naomi ended up choosing an otter. I imagined a river otter, sliding playfully in and out of the water, the sun glinting off its glossy coat. I felt the rush of the river under its belly and the setting sun in its eyes. I saw the wildness of its environment and the strength of its spirit. Yes, I thought, an otter was certainly fitting.
The first time I met Madeline Boyer, I had to walk faster just to keep up with her. I could hardly believe she was 101 years old. When we reached the rendezvous for our interview--the Vista del Monte dining hall--the first thing she did was move the table and its four chairs to a better spot. Then she offered to get me something to drink and asked me to have a seat. I was still so stunned by how quickly she had rearranged the table and chairs that I took an extra dumbfounded second to reply to her kind offer of a beverage. I eventually pulled myself together, of course, and sat down next to this woman who I could already tell would be extraordinary.
I had just started recording when we had an interruption. A woman walked by our table and Madeline asked, "Are you weary?" I thought that was an odd question to ask somebody, so I looked away and pretended to be taking something out of my purse. For some reason, that question made me feel quite uncomfortable especially since the woman didn't reply at first. When I couldn't keep my head down any longer without looking like I was trying to hide, I looked up. The woman was looking at Madeline's face with an odd expression: it was appreciative. She and Madeline discussed her weariness for a few minutes as I sat there, somewhat at a loss for words. The woman left, Madeline turned to me and said, "Well, lead on." So, I did.
Madeline Boyer was born in Byron, a small town in Nebraska. She was raised strictly and religiously, in a family that very strongly supported her and her five other siblings' educations. As a result of this, Madeline, the second of the six children, studied at her local schools until tenth grade, when she had to move to Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, to continue her schooling. Her local high school only went through tenth grade, but her parents were in favor of Madeline's moving away from home at the age of sixteen to complete her high school education. She finished high school in three semesters while working a job. Though the Depression affected her family's daily life, Madeline felt her family dealt with it well. "We had always lived economically, but now we just had to do it more so."
Madeline then continued her education at the University of Nebraska for five years. For three of those five years Madeline learned to be a nurse at the University hospital, but after that she became an Instructor of Nurses, where she taught students Anatomy. "At that time, nursing staff lived in quarters furnished by the hospital, so I was always in a sort of dormitory situation But, being in administration, I had a room to myself, which I quite liked!" After graduating, for the next few years Madeline worked at various hospitals in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas.
In 1935, however, Madeline moved to the sunnier side of the States: Los Angeles, California. There she took a job with the Navy--a job she found disappointing. "I discovered when I really got to work that it was largely a pencil-pushing job. I had thought that I'd be giving hands-on care to Navy personnel."
This was where Madeline's personality began to reveal itself to me. Madeline was not a person who wanted to sit in a cubicle all day "pushing a pencil," as she called it. She was not someone who got any satisfaction from filling out paperwork. She didn't like this job because she wasn't working with people, she couldn't achieve the human connection she wanted. That was what gave her a purpose and that was why being a nurse was what she did.
Madeline didn't remain at her job with the Navy for long because she got married. After about a year with the Navy, when she was 26, Madeline married her husband, Robert. He was later renamed Uncle Bob Fix-It by their youngest nieces and nephews because "he could fix anything!" as Madeline said with a smile. "He sensed in me a sort of stability that he had never had in his childhood."
Here we paused. Stability, balance, security. These were all things I'd heard a lot about: things people have, don't have, want, strive for, can't find. I asked her if she felt stability was necessary for a happy life. She was quiet for a couple moments, reflective. "I'm trying to think of someone who has an unstable life and is happy. But I can't seem to."
Robert and Madeline lived together in Los Angeles and soon had a daughter. Madeline worked towards her public health certificate (she has a lifetime teacher's credential) while Robert was in the newspaper advertising business and they focused on raising their family. All too soon, however, World War II hit. In 1943, Robert was shipped overseas as part of the United States Merchant Marine, responsible in times of war for delivering troops and supplies for the military. Madeline was completely out of contact with him for months, and had to focus instead on raising her daughter and supplying the only paycheck with her job as Head of the Tuberculosis Clinic in L.A. "Everybody's life was affected. World War II got into our daily lives in almost every aspect." I asked her what the general feeling was within her community. I wanted to understand because, though we're at war now, our lives at home are not all that affected unless of course a family member or friend is in service. But our gasoline or food is not rationed, we're not all that restricted. Madeline replied, "We're all in it together. That was the feeling, very much so."
I was moved by Madeline's strength. She had essentially been a single mother during that period, working a job and raising a young child at the same time. Both her brother and her husband were at war, one a pilot and the other a merchant marine, and to top it off she contracted TB from her work and was ill for a couple months--she certainly had a lot on her mind during that time. Yet she still provided a stable home for her daughter, an ability she attributes to the stable foundation her family surrounded her with as a young child.
When Robert finally returned home, Madeline was ecstatic. She told me how all the letters she had written to him had been held in a bunch in New York--he had never received them. She recalled with a smile, "He spent his whole first day back reading them all." Robert, Madeline and their daughter remained in Los Angeles until Madeline retired in 1964. They then moved up north to Cambria in San Luis Obispo County, where Madeline took a volunteer job with an on-call ambulance crew.
"Once on a foggy day, a pleasure craft got lost off the coast--they were having engine trouble. The coast guard set out to rescue them and give them help but they then got lost. So, a plane was sent out from the base in Monterey to survey the scene and give help to the distressed ships, but as it turned inward to return to home base it slammed into the mountain and killed several of the personnel. We were called out to give aid to the survivors. When we got there we had to go through the brush, the poison ivy, to give aid. The flames were licking around the plane. I ordered the injured moved to a safer place and the Coast Highway Patrol and sheriffs arrived to secure the scene. Eventually a plane landed and picked up some of the injured."
I asked her what would go through her mind when she surveyed such a scene. Madeline replied promptly, easily, "'What can I do? What needs to be done?' Those are the questions you have to ask." So, you just push aside the fear? "Oh, you have to. You concentrate on what needs to be done and what you can do. That applies to many things in life." And this is what Madeline gave me. Even after working all her life, Madeline continued to volunteer in an atmosphere that allowed her to directly help her fellow human. And she did that for 10 more years. I asked, awkwardly, "This is really cliche, but did that work help you find meaning in your life?" She replied immediately, raising her eyebrows in a reassuring way: "Yes. Of course it did." The years she had spent caring for others was what gave her meaning in her life. And I found that very eye-opening. It's so simple, yet people find it so hard to do: care for others, help others, and surround yourself with others. Find that human connection.
There was another moment in Madeline's life that particularly stood out to me. Madeline grew up in a religious environment, attending church regularly with her family. She and her siblings weren't even allowed to go to dances. But when Madeline was ten years old, she had a realization that changed her life. "I remember it was a great discovery--a revelation--that even if I was sitting in church and the pastor was orating, I didn't have to listen. That wasn't God talking. I could go off and think my own thoughts. I discovered that."
I was shocked by this. Knowing how influenced I myself am by my peers and family, I couldn't imagine what it would have been like to suddenly realize you don't need something that you had grown up being told was of the utmost importance. It seemed to me it would have been terrifying to let go of something that had been instilled within you since birth. "I won't say it felt sinful but it was a severe departure on my part." So you felt guilty? "Astonished, but not ready to give up the realization." Madeline described herself as feeling liberated, as if she had been released from some kind of hold.
know people use religion to deal with things that are hard to think about: like dying. I asked Madeline if she felt any fear when she completely let go of religion as an adult. "I look at butterflies and cats and dogs and I figure, when they've had it, they've had it. I don't believe that there's a thing in us that's called 'the soul' that flits away to another existence at death. Death is inevitable. It can come gently, it can come violently, or anywhere in between. I know we have to accept that." Madeline, like the other people I'd talked to, wasn't afraid either. I could feel a pattern revealing itself to me, and I have to say I felt a little less afraid of growing older.
But the next thing she said made the biggest impact on me. We had begun talking about how religion helps people know their purpose in life, or find meaningfulness in their daily lives. I had asked her how she found meaning after she had her realization. "I presume that religion is what makes life significant to some people, but it is the human connections that make my life significant." The human connection. I no longer found the question "Are you weary?" that Madeline had asked before our interview an odd thing to say at all.
Madeline Boyer passed away in 2012, five days before her 104th birthday.
I walked into Woody Ohlsen's apartment to find him sitting in a large brown recliner reading a book. He looked up, eyes slightly enlarged by his glasses, and smiled at me. He beckoned me over and I sat down. I said hello and asked him how he was. "Well," he said. "My mind's in good condition." I was beginning to learn that "How are you" wasn't such an easy question to answer when you were in your 80s, 90s, or 100s.
Woodrow Ohlsen was born in Iron Mountain, Michigan on March 1st, 1915. "I don't know if I came in like a lamb or like a lion, but I know I came in protesting." He said, smiling. "There was a lot of crying." For good reason it seemed, as it turned out his appendix was ruptured. When Woody turned fourteen, the pain from his ruptured appendix caused him to need to drop out of school (he didn't get it fixed until he was an adult). He was out for four years, working various jobs to help support his family during the Depression.
He worked in a bowling alley, setting pins. He became superintendent of his Sunday school. He did a lot of work in his family home. "It used to be a schoolhouse. There was a great big stove in the corner. During the winter, I spent my time feeding that stove. I'd go out and cut trees down on our property because it was loaded with Poplar trees so I'd take an axe and go out and haul back these huge chunks of tree. I think one of my shoulders is lower than the other as a result! And, of course, by the next afternoon it was all gone. That stove just gobbled it up. So that went on and on."
Woody and his family attended the Methodist Church, and Woody soon joined the Epworth League for young people. "We'd go on weenie roasts and so on. One time, the minister took us out into the woods past my house and on the way back, when they were going to drop me off, the minister said, 'Why don't you go back to school?' And I said, 'Well, I'm too old.' He said, 'Too old? I read in the newspaper that a man forty years old just graduated from high school.' A light went on in my head. But I didn't have any proper clothing. Luckily, and this is ironic, there was a little forest fire going so I got a job working to control it and earned eleven dollars. I bought a pair of Tom McCann shoes for $3.95. They had paper soles I think! Then I bought a jacket for about five bucks and a pair of black pants. So, I was all dressed and ready to go to school."
When Woody was eighteen, he began high school as a freshman. The principal had agreed to allow him to graduate in three years instead of four. Even though Woody was much older than his peers, he wasn't made fun of. He was extremely well respected and graduated as valedictorian. Woody then was accepted into Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin with the help of another local minister. He attended on a scholarship and eventually became Phi Beta Kappa. "I met a couple girls who slowed me down so I only graduated Cum Laude. My wife at Northwestern got Suma Cum Laude! But anyhow, it was worth it." He laughed, leaning back in his chair.
Woody then got a scholarship to Boston University School of Theology. "So, I went there thinking, well, I can get a B.D., which is a Bachelor of Divinity, then I can transfer the classes to Harvard and get a Ph.D. Well, when I got to Boston, it turned out that when my fellow students learned that I was not going to be a preacher but a teacher, they wondered why I was there."
Thus, Woody ended up staying at BU for only a year. I asked him why he didn't want to be a preacher because he seemed so interested in his own religion and the Bible. He thought for a minute, looking towards a large stuffed Mickey Mouse toy on his bookcase. "Well, I didn't feel I was qualified as a human being to tell other people how to live and to tell them they had to save their souls."
After his year in Boston, Woody decided to head back to his home state of Michigan. He ended up at the University of Michigan, where he got his M.A. and met his wife, Marie. "At lunch time, I met a young man who said, 'Y'know, this fall a beautiful and very intelligent blonde is coming from the University of Northwestern.' I pictured her as some glamorous gal, but she turned out to be just like me!"
Both Woody and Marie were English majors. "We met in class--Anglo Saxon class. All the English teachers and to take it as part of the development of the English language but there were only about thirteen people in that little class. The second time, she sat next to me. I started fiddling underneath the table--there was a wire because I think the professor had some sort of recording device. I went along and, suddenly, I touched a bare knee! Marie told me later, 'I thought maybe I should scream!'" He laughed, eyes shut behind his glasses. "I got all red in the face. Anyhow, we had to get married then." In three weeks Woody and Marie were engaged and in three months they were married. After graduating from the University of Michigan, they both got jobs teaching. Woody has been teaching for sixty years: for thirty one years at various colleges and junior colleges and for the past thirty he has taught adult-ed classes. He taught at the University of Michigan, Lawrence College, a couple classes at UCLA, and even grammar school in England for a year. Along the way, Woody became a published writer. In 1978, he published a book titled Perspectives on Old Testament Literature. "What I was really doing was trying to save the bible from fundamentalists. What I mean is, if that were used in the classroom, students would have the opportunity to talk about the literature of the bible. Not reading it as a holy book but as a work of human beings."
I was ready to talk more about this, but shortly we went back to talking about Marie. It was soon apparent to me that love had played a very large role in Woody's life. How he met Marie was the first thing Woody told me in our conversation and the second thing he told me was that she now has Alzheimer's and that he sees her every day. I was moved by this. I hadn't expected a self-proclaimed intellectual to talk to me so much about love. Woody had told me that one of the reasons he didn't get a Ph.D., something he had planned on getting earlier in his life, was because of Marie. "We shared everything. I'd rather go to a movie with Marie, or a walk, or on a vacation, than be stuck in a library working on my Ph.D."
This was the most valuable thing Woody had told me so far. He chose to live and be with someone he loved rather than strive for a goal that he had thought was so important. He had recognized that his relationship with Marie brought him so much more than achieving a Ph.D. ever would. I was amazed because so many people don't recognize that. In a world completely obsessed with prestige and achievement, Woody had recognized something truly worthwhile: love.
As we talked about Marie, we talked about religion, Alzheimer's, and eventually death. "I've lived with a woman now for 66 years who never believed in God. But she is the most moral person I know because she believes in herself. Now, she believes in me very much because I'm all that she recognizes. Otherwise there's no memory. And I've come to the belief that we are what we remember. That's what you are. And she doesn't remember. So she's really...she's nothing." Nothing? "Except for me." An image of two gnarled trees entwined came into my head, their branches tangled together. Woody continued, "But that means she can't remember anything bad. She's not suffering. She doesn't have cancer eating her away. I hope that she just goes to sleep. I should be mature enough to accept that. Well I know I won't for a while. I'll grieve for her."
I was touched by Woody's words. And I realized that he was right. All you have are your memories, your experiences. That's what makes up who you are.
expected Woody to fall silent, and I was ready to respect that silence for his wife. But he went on, "I do think about death, which is imminent. I could die here, right now, at my age. I'm not afraid of it. Of course, I always think about what Woody Allen said about that, 'I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't wanna be there when it happens.'" He laughed, his sense of humor never failed. "But I would like to just fall asleep and not wake up. On the other hand, wait a minute, I would like to know at the moment that I am dying. Maybe I'll have a vision. I don't know. But I believe pretty much in what Socrates said. They tried him and executed him and he said, 'Well, I don't know who's better off: you people who are getting rid of me or me. Because death's followed either by nothing, by a long sleep, and who doesn't enjoy a long sleep? Or if there's an afterlife, gee, I can talk to Achilles and Agamemnon.' It'd be a wonderful thing. I'm not afraid of it at all. In fact, I even think complete nothingness is a blessing. You don't know anything. For me I would think if there's an afterlife, which means it should go on forever, that that would be very, very boring. Of course God could make it interesting I suppose." He laughed again.
When Woody was 15, he nearly drowned, a reason he cites uncertainly for his lack of fear about death. It was right before Christmas and he, his brother Hartley, his best friend Butch, and the family dog Tex had set out to find a Christmas tree. They had to cross a river, but when they were returning home with the tree, the ice broke and Woody fell into the freezing water. "Butch and Hartley were both calling out for help. I'd gone down my third time and I thought, y'know, it isn't bad to drown. I had some water in my lungs by now. Then I had a vision of my mother. She was sitting at home at the window, expecting me to come home. And I thought, 'Oh my god I can't do this to her.'"
Woody said a devout family member later told him that his survival was the work of God. Woody didn't know if that was true, but he knew had believed in something to save him. I personally thought it was his mother.
Nowadays, Woody tends to call on a god that took me by surprise. "I have my little private resource who is Athena. I call on Athena every once in a while. I don't speak to her as often as I should. But I really think that everybody needs something beyond. A supernatural. Something to believe in."
o far, Woody had shown me the value of love and the fact that experiences are what make us who we are. He was now giving me something else: he was telling me that no matter your religious preference, whether you're an atheist or a devout Catholic, an agnostic or a Buddhist, you need something to believe in. I asked Woody what his outlook on life was now and he said, "Hope. That's all we have left." I thought of Marie. She had lost her memories, her experiences. She had lost who she was, but she remembered Woody. Marie believed in Woody; that was what kept her going. Woody had his memories and experiences. But what was he holding on to? He was something who was losing faith in the world around him. "I'm afraid I'm becoming very, very pessimistic about humankind. About our ability to really live decently together. I know that along with good things are usually bad things. Good things can be used in a bad way, but, then again, bad things can be used in a good way when you react to them. So, it's best to keep your mind alive."
Keep your mind alive. Woody was holding on to hope, and Athena, and God, and all the books he'd read and taught to his students, and Plato and Socrates, and the fact that he and Marie could still kiss and enjoy it. Yes, he wasn't as happy as he used to be and probably never would be. What he has, though, are his memories, his active mind, and yes, of course, he still has love.
Woody Ohlsen died peacefully at the age of 99 on June 15, 2014.